Selfie Beach

Qixingtan Beach in Hualien, Taiwan. Many people posing for photos on an overcast day.
Qixingtan Beach, Hualien.

Look closely. How many people are engaged in the process of taking a photo, either holding a camera or posing for one on this unInstagram-worthy day at Qixingtan Beach in Hualien? I counted 37, out of 92 people. And this is only the people I could be sure about. I don’t know if this is a lot. It struck me as a lot.

Anywhere you go in Taiwan, any “insta-worthy” scene, everyone has their camera out. Everyone seems to have their own signature pose, which leads me to wonder, How exactly does that come about? I’d love to see “Evolution of the Pose”—a photo essay comprised of discarded photos never intended to be seen, building to the creation of that perfect pose. Someone get on that.

That may sound like a critique, but it is far superior to anything I do. When someone shouts “Cheese” I stand there with an idiot grin, like I just got hit on the head with a brick. I have no idea what to do with my arms. They dangle, or I fold them across my chest. My feet remain firmly planted, knees straight, eyes forward, like I was standing for review on a military parade ground. I see a camera pointed at me, I react the way a vampire reacts to his own reflection. I wish I had the same verve the Taiwanese have before the camera.

Fact: More than a trillion photos are taken worldwide every year. Do a quick back of the napkin calculation, we get 173 photos for every living, breathing human on Planet Earth.

It’s safe to say infants aren’t taking photos (yet). Nor the Amish, nor hunter-gatherers retaining the old ways and living in remote places beyond the reach of civilization. There are people, in other words, who have never taken a photo, never posed for one, and never felt like they are missing out. And there are many more who have bigger things to worry about. All of this is to say, some of us take more photos than others. Some of us contribute more, much more, to the photographic record (blogger raises his hand; guilty as charged).

A trillion photos per year. I wonder what the Taiwanese contribute? I doubt anyone knows (or cares), but my feeling is they take more than the average. If you were to map photos taken across the world and color code the map for photographic density (a term I just made up denoting photos taken per square mile/km), if this were possible, and if bright red represented the highest photographic density, I daresay Taiwan would be glowing like an Instagram sunset.

Gold in them thar hills

Golden Falls is located in the hills above Jinguashi, a historic mining town and a proposed World Heritage Site.

The waterfall is striking, but you don’t want to drink the water. It is acidic and fortified with heavy metals, which may or may not be a byproduct of intensive mining in the area.

Gold was first discovered in northern Taiwan in 1892 by workers constructing a railroad from Taipei to Keelung. The result was thousands of prospectors panning for gold in the Keelung River. Then gold deposits were discovered in Jinguashi. Cue the gold rush; Jinguashi became a boom town.

Japan annexed Taiwan in 1895. Mining operations were expanded at Jinguashi. Copper deposits were discovered. Jinguashi eventually became one of the largest mines in Asia. The gold ran out in the 1970s. The mine officially closed in 1987.

According to the garbled English on the Gold Museum’s website, Golden Falls is man-made. After the mines closed, “clogged tunnels” blocked the flow of groundwater, redirecting it over a hillside (I hope I got that right).

The water tumbling over Golden Falls becomes Jinguashi Creek. The creek empties into a bay called the Yin and Yang Sea. The acidic, yellow water of the creek contrasts sharply with the cobalt blue of the Pacific, which can be seen in the photos above.

It is claimed that the unusual color of the water is the result of natural chemical processes caused by an unusually high concentration of pyrite (fool’s gold) in the area, not the result of pollution caused by decades of heavy mining. I’ve read this claim on websites touting Taiwanese tourism. What to make of it?

I’m inclined to be skeptical. I am not a chemist, or a geologist or a hydrologist or a mining engineer for that matter, but it seems at least possible that the environmental impact of decades of heavy mining may endure long after mining operations have ceased.

Either way, no one recommends splashing in the water emanating from Jinguashi. They are indisputably hazardous to one’s health.

Cuesta Rock

Cuesta Rock, Shihtiping

A “cuesta” is a geological term describing a hill or ridge with a gentle slope on one side and a cliff the other.

This particular cuesta is located on the East Coast of Taiwan, just south of where the Xiuguluan River empties into the Pacific.

Cuesta Rock is testament to Taiwan’s volcanic history. The light gray rock is made up of “tuff,” ash deposited from a volcanic eruption. The ash compacted and hardened into stone. Thousands of years of wind and wave erosion has carved the rock into a dreamscape. The rock seems to ooze and run and drip. The ripples in the rock are reminiscent of flowing water.


Shihtiping sunrise.

We spent a weekend camping in Shihtiping, also spelled “Shitiping” (I shit you not).

Shihtiping translates as “stone terrance.” It is an arresting stretch of coastline—stepped volcanic rock carved by the wind and the waves. We delighted exploring the whimsical landscape.

We almost didn’t go. It was raining. It was a long drive from Kaohsiung at the end of a long week. But we said the hell with it and went anyway. Glad we did. The campsite books up weeks in advance. Because of the rain, we almost had the place to ourselves. By Saturday it was clear skies. And this (above) was the view that greeted us Sunday morning.

Have SUV, will travel

Silver grass (Miscanthus Sinensis) growing the banks of the Zhuokou River in Maolin.

Bought an old SUV, which meant we could finally get out of the city. We could get in the car and simply go. Anywhere, anytime we felt like it. This weekend Dahlia didn’t care about particulars as long we went somewhere.

We escaped the smog dome of Kaohsiung and headed east. Windows down, the Dog of Destiny’s ears flapping in the crisp morning air.

Our destination: Maolin National Scenic Area, home of the Purple Butterfly Valley, one of only two places in the world were butterflies are known to migrate en masse (the other being Monarch Valley in Northern Mexico).

Millions of purple crow butterflies with iridescent, purple-spotted wings fly south and congregate in a handful of valleys at the base of Dawu Mountain. This happens in November. So I read.

Purple crow butterflies (Euploea tulliolus) fluttering on tropical milkweed. With the camera equipment I had on hand, it was difficult to be a good shot.

It was, if nothing else, a worthy pretext for a weekend expedition.

Onward. Over bridged byway. Across low-lying tropical land. Past rice paddies and roadside temples and barking dogs, stands of palm fronds and banana trees and dragon fruit. Onward to the mountain hinterland, mist-shrouded and verdant.

We traced the course of the Gaoping River, then its tributary, the Zhuokou River. We followed winding path up a mountain valley on a road built on stilts, which became a road carved into cliffside. We went all the way Duona (an indigenous village) and back again.

We took our time. We stopped at various points of interest. We hiked a mountain trail a to a waterfall. We traversed suspension bridge over a vertigo-inducing ravine. We clambered up and over an elevated boardwalk built atop a ridge line. And we admired the view from several panoramic lookouts. We made an entire weekend of it—Dahlia and I with the Dog of Destiny in tow.

And all the while before us, dancing on the wind like Autumn snow flakes, were butterflies, butterflies of various shapes and sizes and colors, far too numerous to count.

Chasing waterfalls

Eagles’ God Waterfall, about an hour east of Kaohsiung.

Took a couple of wrong times, finally found the place. There wasn’t a sign, only a couple of parked cars and the sound of rushing water. We ambled down a forest path to the water’s edge. We swam. We splashed. We floated. Downstream, perched on a slippery rock, I squinted through a viewfinder. A shaft of light broke through the forest canopy for a few brief seconds. I captured what I could of the moment. The rain came soon after. Stranded under a leaking pagoda, we laughed and ate a make-shift meal. Then we splashed our way back to the car and headed home. It was our first Sunday in Taiwan.

Kaohsiung by Ferris Wheel

Kaohsiung Panoramic
Kaohsiung, Taiwan

At the top of a ferris wheel, on the roof of a shopping mall, on a hill overlooking Kaohsiung. It was midday on a Monday. I was the only passenger. This gave me pause. What if they forget I’m on this thing and head out to lunch? Ridiculous, I know. But it triggered a flash bulb succession of disaster movie scenarios in my head, the last of which had me dangling mid-air from a rescue helicopter (the downside of the writer’s imagination; it can be quite inconvenient at times). I’ll never get Dahlia up here, I thought. Not a chance. But the views were spectacular, well worth the heart palpitations and sweaty palms.